Jana Euler: High In Amsterdam. The Sky Of Amsterdam (The Stedelijk Museum- Amsterdam)

Hi everyone!

Thanks for checking out CanvasAndCrumpets.  As you may know, I just got back from my Euro Trip and I’ve been posting about the exhibits I saw in order. I recently posted about three different exhibitions I saw in England. You can check them out here, here, and here. After a week of museuming and eating bangers and mash with my English cousins, I flew to the Netherlands.  On my flight I was seated in the middle of a large bachelor party, next to the groom-to-be-himself. If you have the chance to travel with a very drunk bachelor party you absolutely must take it because it was the best flight I’ve ever had. There was also a large party of middle-aged-women wearing shirts that said “F*** off, I’m with the birthday boy” and a rather emo looking high school student wearing a shirt that said “F*** off, I’m the birthday boy.” All of the women were screaming.

And so, I arrived in Amsterdam slightly tipsy and very excited. The city did not disappoint (as always!) At the absolute top of my list was a trip to the Stedelijk Museum. The Stedelijk is where I fell in love with Dutch art, and where I did much of my research for my senior thesis. I’m obsessed with the art, the building, the library, and the now deceased museum director Willem Sandberg. (I’m currently reading a compilation of Sandberg interviews).

On view at the Stedelijk right now is the exhibition, “Jana Euler: High in Amsterdam. The Sky of Amsterdam.” While it is difficult to read that sentence without immediately thinking of Dutch drug policy, it would be remiss to read off the German artists’ trippy canvases as mere mushroom-inspired dreamscapes. Euler’s works are explorations of different genres. She takes the concepts and strategies associates with each and plays with them, bending them inside-out. The Stedelijk describes Euler’s work as being “recognizable not by how it looks, but by its effect.” Let’s take a look at my favorite work from this show and see Euler’s process in action.

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Here is the ethereal Understanding Doubts and Logic (2017):

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For this work Euler airbrushed acrylic paint onto the surface of the canvas and then used oil paint on top. The two layers operate as separate paintings as well as aspects of a finished whole. The airbrushed layer features a multi-limbed and multi-breasted female figure resting in a garden filled with flowers. The oil layer features shoes, nail polish, and fake eyelashes. If you look closely, you’ll also see that there are tiny pictures of men sitting at a table with a bottle of wine painted in thin brushstrokes of oil paint. Stranger yet is the fact that white breastmilk from each of the figure’s many breasts pours into the bottles at the men’s tables. Oil is also used to spell the phrase “understanding doubts and logic” and to connect this phrase to a yellow sun by way of a thin yellow line.

Now, I have a lot of thoughts about this painting and what it might “mean.” So I’ll begin by saying that Jana Euler’s work is not explicitly symbolic. It does not fit into an allegorical box that matches icon with signification. Rather, it suggests a multiplicity of signification for various images across the canvas. It points to potential interpretations without maintaining that it must be read a specific way. And so, my reading should be seen as one angle of many that fit Euler’s multifaceted work.

I see Understanding Doubts and Logic as a blend of two genres: the female nude, and the sort of impressionistic cafe paintings that were popular in late 19th-century Parisian art. The airbrushed painting is the nude, as the naked figure takes up the majority of the canvas. Her head heads several inches below the top of the canvas, and her many feet end slightly before it, or have their toes chopped off by the bottom of the canvas. Because she fills the canvas, the focus of the painting is on her. The viewer’s eyes are free to travel across the surface of the painting, consuming different parts of her body at every turn. We as viewers fill the role of the voyeur in the relationship between viewer and subject in this genre. Euler is keenly aware of this dynamic and playfully mocks it by multiplying the subject’s breasts. Euler seems to be saying, “I know you’re going to look at this woman, so why don’t I give you a lot more to look at!” The artist has also multiplied the amount of feet in the painting. I find this very amusing, as it is clear to all that feet were never the focus of the viewer’s gaze.

Another way that Euler plays into this genre is through the figure’s gaze. In classic female nudes like this and this the female figure looks away from the viewer, allowing him to consume her without confrontation. Making eye contact would break the illusion that she wants to be consumed and is there for male consumption. She would be individualized. No longer staring at an anonymous doll, the viewer would feel confronted by the figure and embarrassed by his blatant ogling. And so, restricting eye contact allows the viewer to consume the figure in peace. Like the academic nudes do, Euler’s figure looks away demurely, allowing the viewer to get lost in her multitude of breasts and legs.

However, the longer we stare at the figure, the more we begin to feel that we are being made fun of. Not only has Euler multiplied the significance of the figure’s gender through the multiplication of breasts, but she has also aggressively emphasized other aspects of femininity. The long, curling eyelashes added over the airbrushed layer of paint are so ludicrously long it would be difficult for the figure to open her eyes. There are many kiss imprints haphazardly stamped on the surface of the painting. The figure’s red fingernails are half the size of her fingers themselves. Her breasts are many different colors, as if the figure is somehow able to be many ethnicities at once and therefore satisfy the male viewer’s many racial fantasies. Euler has created a woman who screams “WOMAN” so loudly that she becomes a parody of what the voyeuristic male wants– and expects– women to be.

This interpretation is supported by the second layer of the painting that I find resembles the cafe scenes in impressionistic France. Men outlined in black paint sit around a table drinking from proportionally enormous bottles of wine. I am reminded of 19th century cafe scenes because of the leisurely, gendered nature of each tableau. I find it comical that the female figure has been so artfully constructed with layers of paint and bright, vibrant colors, while the males are designated to mere outlines of form. While painterly attention to the female body is often objectifying, Euler’s self-conscious multiplication of gendered body parts is actually empowering. Thus, the contrast between the colorful female figure and the haphazard outlines of teeny male figures renders the male characters inferior. Euler further emasculates them by unknowingly serving them wine bottles filled with breastmilk. Droplets of white paint spill from each nipple into a bottle on each table. This is perhaps the most amusing aspect of this painting. Euler has taken the sexist notion that a woman’s role is as a wife and mother alone and used it to turn the power dynamic between men and women on its head. The men are infantilized by their small size, simplistic depiction, and the hysterical fact that they are drinking a woman’s breastmilk.

Here are Lara (my travel pal) and I, very amused at this:

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So what do we take away from Understanding Doubts and Logic? I quite like the interpretation I just presented, though I am not sure how the title fits in. Perhaps the female creature, whose forehead bears this phrase, is somehow all-knowing in her female genius. She can understand both the understandable and what we doubt we can comprehend. I come away from this painting feeling empowered and amused. Euler has turned gender dynamics on their head with a coy smile. Her belittling depiction of men is not a statement that women are actually superior, but a commentary on the way the reverse is so prevalent in our society.

I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. The point of this book is that the so-called weaknesses attributed to underdogs are actually qualities that give them an advantage against their opponent. Euler has taken the “weaknesses” of women that the patriarchy attributes to the “fairer gender” and turned them into symbols of power. Breastmilk and long eyelashes signify greatness and strength.

Until next time!

xoxo,

Chloe ❤

Making Modern (Museum of Fine Arts- Boston)

Good morning everyone!

I am beyond excited to share with you my journey to the MFA last week. What made it so special was that I came away from Making Modern with a linear, tangible storyline to add to the vat of cultural knowledge in my brain. I don’t know about you, but I sometimes find museums extremely overwhelming. A single exhibit can house so many written panels filled with background information and analysis that it’s difficult to extract a coherent thought. I like to leave a museum feeling like I learned something specific, something that can be summed up in a sentence, and then expanded upon if requested. If you asked me what I learned from Making Modern I would tell you, “The exhibit covered a lot of ground, but my mine takeaway was that German Expressionism had a huge impact on American artists, especially those in Boston.”

Through the next few paintings, I hope to explain that specific relationship to you all.

Karl Zerbe and Max Beckmann, two distinguished German expressionist painters, fled Germany during the second world war. They arrived with many other German immigrants, though the majority of these were German-Jews. Zebra was Jewish. Beckmann was not, but his unnaturalistic art had been directly attacked by Hitler, who opposed art that inhabited an unnatural world. He considered such works “Un-German,” and gathered them together in The Degenerate Art Exhibit (1937). Hitler’s policy towards ‘Degenerate artists,’ as Zerbe, Beckmann and their peers came to be called, rapidly escalated. It eventually became necessary for Beckmann to flee with Zerbe. Zerbe would become the head of the painting and drawing department at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Job (1949), is a wonderful example of Zerbe’s intense, emotional style, right in the vein of German Expressionism.

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Job is a figure from the Bible. His kindness and goodness are praised by God Himself. Satan challenges God, stating that Job is only good because he has been blessed with prosperity. And so, God agrees to let Satan torment Job, in order to prove that Job will never curse Him. Satan puts Job through many hardships- his livestock and his family die, and then he is afflicted with full-body sores. All the while, he refuses to curse God. Even when egged on by his philosophizing friends, he will not curse God. At the end of the story, Satan is proved wrong. God returns Job’s livestock and children and blesses him with even more prosperity than before.

What makes Job so poignant is that it is not simply a biblical portrayal. It is actually a self-portrait. Zerbe paints himself through the guise of Job in order to say something about his own self. He was a German-Jew after all, and the horrors of the Holocaust were enough to make anyone question his faith. How could God allow such things to happen to His people? Would God, if He existed, stand by while such carnage occurred? I believe that Job depicts Zerbe’s personal struggle with his faith. Ultimately, faith prevails, as Job refuses to curse God and Zerbe finds hope in the Jewish faith.

The visual elements of Job support this double narrative. His outstretched hands are pleading. The palms are exaggerated with heavy, dark lines. The viewer’s eye is drawn to their deep carvings. Similar lines are etched into his weary face. Take a look at this detail of Job’s face:

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Lines on the skin are caused by age, but also by stress. Additionally, they give the appearance of one having lived through trying times. We associate wrinkles with worldliness and experience. Here, Zerbe portrays his life experiences- persecution, turmoil, escape, perhaps the death of family and friends- through the deep lines that cover his body. His wears his pain and grief on his skin.

It is tempting to draw comparisons with the bodies of Holocaust victims. Here, Job looks emaciated, his torso shrunken beneath gaunt shoulders. I am hesitant to make such a leap because Zerbe arrived in Boston in 1937. He never knew life in the camps, though I am positive that knowledge of them affected him deeply. Perhaps the gauntness of this figure is a reference to the starved bodies of his Jewish brothers and sisters, searching for hope and clinging to their faith despite adversity. This would then be the second reference Zerbe used in order to characterize himself, the story of Job being the first.

Job utilizes unnatural colors and abstract shapes. His skin contains streaks of green, red, yellow, blue, brown, orange, purple and white. These colors don’t pretend to blend. They run into each other with abandon, only interrupted by thick black lines that demonstrate Job’s shallow torso and protruding collarbone. It is difficult to make out what is behind Job’s head. I see a configuration of yellow and red rags. What immediately comes to mind is the German flag, though there are no overt depictions of stripes. Bits of patterns pop up here and there on the surface of the painting. There are a few inches of red and black chevron on either side of Job’s arms, and green squares between his legs. Such unrealistic, abstract colors and shapes are characteristic of German Expressionism. They increase the painting’s emotional tenor. Imagine for a moment what this painting would look like if a black background were painted rather than this cacophony of colors, shapes and patterns? Would it feel as jumbled? Would Job look as desperate?

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Still Life with Three Skulls (1945), exemplifies Max Beckmann’s dark, symbolic strand of German Expressionism.

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As I mentioned before, Beckmann was not Jewish, but he fled Germany because of his controversial artistic practices. He was deeply affected by the carnage of the war. In Still Life with Three Skulls, Beckmann explores the ephemerality of life through the transient existence of objects. Skulls represent the briefness of human life. The millions dead in the War and the Holocaust were a reminder of the flimsy barrier between life and death. In depicting playing cards and bottles of liquor, it can be interpreted that Beckmann is criticizing mankind for gambling with life, such a frail thing that could be taken away at any moment.

The motif of the playing card can also be interpreted as luck. It is as if life is one giant game, and you never know if you will suddenly win or lose.

In the first interpretation, Beckmann takes a morally superior role. He chastises people for wasting away their lives when so many people have had theirs forcibly taken. In the second interpretation, Beckmann takes a passive, pessimistic role. He views life as a game that is out of our control. Whether we live or die depends on what dice you roll.

Of course, the wonderful thing about art history is that so much is subjective. I think both interpretations make sense. However, I’d like to apply a little historical background to see if one seems more fitting than the other.

Germany was late to the unification game. The many duchies, principalities, kingdoms and city-states that made up Prussia (and later, Germany) didn’t unite until the late 19th century. After this point, the Germans were eager to prove that they belonged on the global stage. They industrialized rapidly, and focused on building their navy in order to compete imperially with Britain. Their involvement in World War I (a Grade A disaster) led to a soul-crushing set of terms decided on at the Treaty of Versailles. Most notably, the Germans were forced to pay tremendous war reparations. These reparations were so immense that the German government was still paying Great Britain for damages in 2010. (That’s right. I said 2010). So you can imagine how massive the numbers must have seemed to the Germans back in 1919. But even more difficult for the Germans to cope with, was the statement that the Germans were solely responsible for the entire war. Germany experienced 2 million casualties during the war. This statement effectively blamed Germany for that massive loss. This was very difficult for people to wrap their heads around. First, they lost millions of their brothers and sisters. And then, they were told that it was their own fault. Added to that, the country was in crippling debt. It is not difficult to see how Hitler manipulated the vulnerable population. His rise was gradual, and his racist policies piecemeal. From then on we see the Second World War, which led to many deaths, and the Holocaust, which decimated the Jewish population in Europe. THIS is the Germany that Beckmann was part of. This was his heritage, his perspective, his everyday life.

Does that information illuminate anything about the two interpretations I proposed?

Beckmann was part of a culture that struggled with guilt, debt, and helplessness. Would such a man be morally superior towards his fellow men, or passively pessimistic towards the events of life that were out of his control? I personally believe that it’s the latter.

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Now I would like to turn to the American artists who were so affected by Zerbe and Beckmann’s presence in the United States.

Marsden Hartley painted lots of bright, unnaturalistic landscapes and nonfigurative, heavily symbolic paintings. The former style was most definitely characteristic of German Expressionism. We see lots of colorful, unrealistic nature scenes in German works of the early 20th century. However, his portraits were heavily influenced by the German presence in Boston in the 1940s. He later spent time in Berlin, where he was inspired further.

Hartley painted The Great Good Man in 1942.

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Compare this painting to Job and Still Life with Three Skulls. Do you see any similarities between the three? The first thing that I notice is the manner in which Hartley paints Abraham Lincoln’s face- he uses thick black paint to create a harsh outline. These lines are quite similar to the thick lines Zerbe used to paint Job’s wrinkles and protruding ribs. Similar thick lines surround the objects in Still Life with Three Skulls. It is quite characteristic of German Expressionism to surround people and objects with color. Perhaps it lent them permanence in an impermanent world.

There is also an emphasis in The Great Good Man on darkness. The black outlines are painted in as jet-black a hue as possible. Hartley has also applied a sort of gloss on top of the color to make it shine. Take a look at the detail below:

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Do you not feel that Hartley is reveling in this hue? It feels almost sensual, the way the color both repels with its darkness and pulls with its gleam. I wanted to buy a postcard of this painting, but the reproduction could not capture the sparkling quality of the beautiful black paint.

I find a similar reveling in darkness in Still Life with Three Skulls. In that painting, Beckmann painted gaping holes in the eyes and mouths of the three skulls. There is something tantalizing about the empty space. It should be negative space, perhaps lightly shadowed by light shining into the recesses of the bone. In a naturalistic image, one might see such an effect. But in this highly expressive painting, the negative space is painted thickly and glossily- does that make the negative space, positive space? The space inside the eye sockets and the jaw become players in the painting, taunting the viewer with their ambiguity. In The Great Good Man, Hartley, too, finds pleasure in the ambiguity caused by the color black.

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Jack Levine was  Jewish painter, born and raised in Boston. He was also heavily influenced by Zerbe, Beckmann, and the other German Expressionists. This interesting painting is entitled Street Scene No. 1. (1938).

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Again, you can see figures outlined heavily with thick, black, brushstrokes. The figures are unnaturally colored in a bizarre orange-red. Their facial features have been painted with coarse, black lines. Even the proportions are exaggerated; the heads of all three figures are bulbously large. Take a look below. These are all characteristics of German Expressionism that we have explored at length.

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Furthermore, the space that these figures are situated in feels unsteady. Is the man on the viewer’s left in his own scene, or is he leaning against a building, inside which the other two men reside? Space is ambiguous. It is secondary to the depiction of the men.

We can use small visual clues to learn something about the men in this painting. Their clothing indicates that they are working class. The man on the viewer’s left wears a white t-shirt, wrinkled by thick black lines. Perhaps he works in construction, or down on the docks. Bits of pink and orange floating in murky black vaguely resemble water. He might be resting by the river during a break. The other two men wear long-sleeved white shirts and black vests with bow-ties. One holds something with writing in his hand, and has thick globs of red paint splashed on his palms. Is he a waiter, handling a menu? Then why the red globs? Perhaps he is the chef, cooking an animal that has just been caught. The other man in a vest has a little hat perched on his head that lends him a little more authority. Perhaps he is a policeman, or holds a different city job.

Levine was actually a social realist painter. Social realism is a brand of relatively lifelike figurative painting that has a social-justice slant. Many social realist works aim to make commentary on the livelihood of the working man. This information lines up nicely with the above analysis. Levine has lent these working men great dignity while simultaneously making his social-realist point. Rather than depicting them slaving away in the name of capitalism, he portrays them in a moment of calm, when they have agency over their own lives. Street Scene No. 1. paints working people as individuals, rather than a part of a machine. This reflects his political views, and in the process, renders a dignified expressionist portrait of three working men in Boston.

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Lastly, I’d like to look at this painting by Hyman Bloom, a Latvian immigrant to the United States. It is called Female Corpse, Back View (1947).

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Bloom came to the United States with his family in 1920. He would become a key member of the Boston Expressionist School. As we talked about, this school was heavily influenced by German Expressionism. We can see this influence in Female Corpse, Back View. 

First and foremost, it is important to note that Bloom was raised in an orthodox Jewish household. He, like Zebre, dealt with the emotional repercussions of being a Jewish person aware of the Holocaust, but with no personal experience living in a camp. This knowledge tormented him, and he became obsessed with the theme of death. A visit to a morgue inspired a whole series of cadaver paintings like this one. If you recall, Beckmann, too, was influenced by themes of death. Still Life with Three Skulls depicts three garish skulls, and deals with themes of passivity and pessimism surrounding death. In Female Corpse, Back View, Bloom approached death from a different perspective.

Upon visiting the morgue for the first time, Bloom wrote, “I had the conviction of immortality, of being part of something permanent and ever-changing, of metamorphosis  as the nature of being. Everything was intensely beautiful, and I had a sense of love for life that that was greater than any I had ever felt before.”

Take a moment to drink this in. It’s a very beautiful quote. I was surprised to read it at first. I expected his response, as a Jewish man in 1947, to be anger and confusion, maybe helplessness and fear. Not beauty, not immortality. But this speaks to his unquestionable faith. Perhaps the only way for him to survive, to move forward, was to find a thread of reason in life. In a world that doesn’t make sense, because millions of people are murdered for no reason, finding some logic to hold onto could be the only thing keeping someone going. For Bloom, he explained away the horrors of death by finding beauty in metamorphosis. He saw dead bodies and believed that they were transitioning into the next stage of their lives. Because of this, he painted them in vibrant, gorgeous colors. Take a look.

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This cadaver is anything but gruesome. She is red, yellow, pink, gold, purple, teal, green, white, blue, every color under the sun! These colors swirl together in an amorphous blob of joyous hues.

Her figure seems strangely bulbous, even more so than the heads of the men in Street Scene No. 1. I am very curious about this. Is this an accurate depiction of this cadaver? Did she have bony shoulders and a large torso and bottom? Or is he depicting the cadaver in some kind of colorful chrysalis, as she begins her journey into the next life? The browning white cloth, which I assume represents the shroud, cocoons her. Perhaps she will turn into a butterfly. The combination of beauty and ugliness is very Expressionistic. So is the handling of the thick brushstrokes of bright, vibrant color. Perhaps the most German Expressionist is the ambiguity. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know what form the cadaver will take next.

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I hope that you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing it! Mostly, I hope that I have conveyed to you what I took away from this fascinating exhibit: The German Expressionists had a huge impact on the development of Boston Expressionist Painters. I highly recommend that you go see this exhibit at the MFA. What I covered was only a small section of a much larger exhibit. Check out the German and Boston Expressionist works, but also be sure to look at the works by Georgia O’Keefe, Stuart Davis, and Frieda Kahlo. Let me know what you think!

Until next time!

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤

 

The Demise of Abraham Reiss (National Holocaust Museum- Amsterdam)

Well, it finally happened. My four months in Amsterdam came to a close (with a few tears, and a whole lot of gruyere). I may be back in the Big Apple, but I’m not ready to let go of my blissful semester abroad just yet- partially because I am in denial and partially because I still have a few posts queue’d up! My last couple weeks in Amsterdam were spent scurrying from museum to gallery to museum and back again, as I feverishly attempted to cross everything off my bucket list.

One museum I am extremely glad I visited was the National Holocaust Museum. Amsterdam has several institutions dedicated to the Jewish experience in the Netherlands. I visited the  Jewish Historical Museum, the Portuguese Synagogue, the Holocaust Memorial, the Dutch Resistance Museum, and the Ann Frank House all before the National Holocaust Museum opened in May. Despite the abundance of Jewish institutions in Amsterdam, the National Holocaust Museum feels extremely prudent, and fulfills an important niche in Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter. It uses both history and art to weave together an emotional history of the Holocaust in the Netherlands.

The exhibit currently on display is The Demise of Abraham Reiss, by Jeroen Krabbé. In this exhibition, Holocaust survivor Krabbé imagines the life of his Grandfather in a series of nine multi-media works. Krabbé’s grandfather, Abraham, unfortunately did not survive the Holocaust, and was brutally murdered in Sobibor. This series of works is accompanied by a documentary in which Krabbé himself discusses his artistic choices. I will reference his ideas as well as my own in the following analysis.

The first work is entitled, Spanderswoud, 1904. It depicts Abraham at his prime, a successful diamond cleaver and lover of leisure. Here, he is perched in the grass in the woods, where he likely arrived on his Raleigh bike.

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Notice how the the landscape is heavily decorated with both paint and sand. Not a spot of grass or tree is left unpainted. And yet, Abraham himself is sketched in charcoal. It seems as if the slightest brush of a hand could wipe away the marks that represent him. He looks out at us, the viewers, with an unreadable expression. His body, though at rest, seems oddly stiff, as if he is posing for a photograph he did not want taken. Note the one white tree at the viewer’s right. This tree will become important later.

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The second work, Ostend, 1929, depicts a seaside scene. Here, Abraham strolls down the beach while on holiday in Ostend.

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He does not know that it is his last holiday there. At this time, he can afford expensive suits and vacations, but his investments in American Stock are about to bankrupt him. Krabbé illustrates this sense of foreboding through several visual techniques. Note the way Abraham’s shadow is swallowed up by the surf. Murky blue and green water grab hold of Abraham’s yellow shadow and disfigure it, blending it into the foamy sand. Abraham saunters on, blissfully unaware of what is right next to him. Krabbé also indicates the coming troubles with the rainclouds at the top left. Here is a detail of the storm:

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Note how Krabbé uses overlapping vertical and horizontal lines- a technique called cross-hatching- to create a sense of gusting winds. These cross-hatching lines descend into the water, blurring the line between sea and sky. The water, too, looks hazardous, gradually surging towards the coastline.

Abraham’s black and white form is once more drawn with charcoal, while the rest of the painting is covered in thick brushstrokes and dotted with grains of sand. This isolates him, especially in relation to his family, who are clumped together in the middle of the painting. They are difficult to discern because Krabbé has barely colored them in. They remain white on a beige beach. Perhaps Krabbé meant to foreshadow Abraham’s isolation from his family. Or, the proximity of the wife and daughters to the impending storm symbolizes the catastrophic effect of the stock market crash on the Reiss family. Just how catastrophic this was, is revealed in the coming pictures.

Krabbé also notes that he included a stairway at the top right of the beach. He calls this stairway an ‘escape.’ The addition of an ‘escape’ is poignant because the viewer is aware that Abraham was unable to utilize it.

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The third work, April 24 1942, Jekkerstraat 14-3, was painted from an actual photograph of Abraham, his wife, and his two daughters.

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After the stock market crash in 1929, Abraham lost all of the money he made in the diamond business. His family was forced to move from their luxurious home to a smaller one on Jekkerstraat. This would prove to be fatal for the Reiss family, because they did not have the money to go into hiding once the Nazis started deporting Jews. Abraham’s wife suffered from diabetes, and actually died the day after this photograph was taken. She may not have died in a death camp, but Abraham often said that it was the Nazis who killed her. She died after reading a newspaper headline that stated all Jews were to wear an identifying yellow star. Abraham kept this newspaper, and intended to use it as evidence after the War that the Nazis had killed his wife.

In Krabbé’s painting, imagery plays a vital role. Once more, Abraham is a charcoal ghost, while his family members and the room itself are thickly painted. The room is half a room and half a forest. On the viewer’s left, the room is filled with trees. Do these trees look familiar? Refer back to the first painting, Spanderswoud, 1904, and note how the singular white tree in that painting has multiplied in this work. Furthermore, hints of red have covered its white bark. Then, on the right side of the room, we see decorative wallpaper surrounding a door. The black door leads to a room so red it is quite literally on fire. Everywhere the Reiss family turns, their life is transforming: into fire, into forest, into death.

Perhaps the most haunting details are the whispers of silver sand across the surface of the painting. Take a look:

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The breezes of grey dust cover Abraham, his wife, and only one of the daughters. One daughter- the mother of Krabbé, who survived the Holocaust- is left untouched. We can see, then, that these ‘whispers,’ as Krabbé calls them, signify the inevitability of death descending upon them.

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This is Westerbork, 20 June 1943, the fourth work in Krabbé’s series. It depicts Abraham when he arrives in the Dutch labor camp.

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His charcoal form stands out in the center of this yellow canvas. He still wears his woolen coat and hat, and clutches his bag with one gloved hand. Here, sand, field and sky are one. Swirling yellow sand covers the canvas both figuratively and literally, as sand is a material used in all nine works. The effect is claustrophobic, just as the camp would have been to its inmates. A row of soldiers lines the right side of the canvas. In the far back on the viewer’s left there are tiny figures toiling in the field. They, too, are unpainted, concocted from charcoal and negative space. Their identities are slipping away, much like their representation on canvas.

This was a very heart-wrenching painting to look at. I find the way Abraham clutches his bag to be especially upsetting. The contents of his bag are the last items he brought from home. He probably carries old photographs and family heirlooms. Upon deportation, Jews were told to bring with them only a small bag. Of course, all their possessions would be taken from them, but instructing them to bring a bag created an illusion of safety. If they were allowed to bring their possessions, how bad could their destination be? This psychological deceit I find particularly nauseating. For this reason, I find Westerbork, 20 June 1943 to be one of the most poignant, most emotionally stirring paintings in the series.

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Westerbork, 6 July 1943 takes place several days after the previous work. In this painting, we see Abraham being sent by rail to the next, unknown location. This location would be Sobibor.

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The ‘whispers’ we saw in April 24 1942, Jekkerstraat 14-3 are even more prevalent here. Krabbé has coated the surface of the painting with a tremendous amount of black, grey, and white flecks. As you can see in the following detail, these specks disfigure the faces of the travelers, rendering them identity-less. The man in this detail looks like a mass of yellow paint with black splattered all over. One cannot discern his eyes from the whispers of death. As the whispers become more prominent, and the identities of the figures less distinguishable, one is left with a sense of foreboding.

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Meanwhile, Abraham continues to look at the viewer. There is too much glare on his glasses for us to properly make eye contact with him. And yet, the way he turns to face the viewer at this moment that everyone else piles into the crowded train suggests that he does see us. This moment, this pause, is filled with grace and dignity. One cannot help but admire the way Abraham regards the viewer with quiet confidence, despite the uncertainty of his situation.

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6,7,8 July 1943 depicts the inside of the train during the journey from Westerbork to Sobibor.

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I am uncertain if this is meant to be three versions of Abraham in the three positions he assumed during the journey. The charcoal coloring of all three figures suggests that this is the case. All three figures have balding heads and collared coats with trousers. In this work, the boxcar walls are red and black. If you look closely, you may see the familiar tree motif etched into the red with black paint.And then, in the center, there is a giant X scratched onto the canvas, symbolizing, perhaps, the end. The whispers are black now, floating heavily over all three versions of Abraham. He has closed his eyes, bowed his head, and in one iteration, laid on the floor, but never has he lost his dignity. He stands solemnly, his shoulders relaxed. Even in despair, the Abraham that Krabbé has depicted is noble.

* * *

The following work is entitled, Sobibor, 9 July 1943. It depicts Abraham’s arrival at the Polish death camp.

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This is the first time that we see Abraham’s back, rather than his face. He exits the train car and walks toward the lineup. I find it odd that this work, and the previous, depict the train car to be empty despite the testimonials that these cars were filled way past capacity. I believe that this was done to highlight Abraham’s personal emotional journey, rather than to create a realistic image of what the transportation would have been like. Isolating Abraham serves to place focus on him and his relationship to his surroundings, which are filled with symbolic imagery.

In this work, the landscape begins to turn charcoal like Abraham’s figure. The trees in the background- yes, the tree motif we have seen throughout the series- are drawn entirely in charcoal. These are the famous birch trees that populated many of the forests surrounding extermination camps. They are known for having white bark and peculiar black markings all up and down their trunks that resemble eyes. This gives a deeper meaning to the expression, “the forest has eyes.” In this case, the forest did have eyes, eyes that witnessed what was about to happen to Abraham and his fellow Jews.

It is in this painting that the themes of the series come together. The trees and whispers of death that have followed Abraham throughout his life- throughout this series of paintings- end in Sobidor, where they surround him. Abraham’s charcoal existence begins to make sense. It is Krabbé’s way of representing what the Holocaust did for individuals: it tore away their identities until they were nothing more than blank white canvases. Sobidor stripped Abraham of his identity. His past life became a memory, and then a myth. In the first several works we see, it is as if we are looking back on his life after he has died, and his identity is threatening to wash away completely. Krabbé has captured him with charcoal, forcing his memory back onto the canvas and into the minds of viewers. In depicting his grandfather’s story, Krabbé returns to him his identity.

* * *

In the last two works, the metaphor is completed. Much of the canvas turns to charcoal while the color of the paint desaturates until it is only black and white. This is Sobibor, 9 July 1943 11 am. 

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In this work, Krabbé depicts the de-humanizing act of undressing that the Jews were forced to endure in front of the Nazi guards. I think the sorrow in Abraham’s face speaks for itself.

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The forest is watching too. Note how the forest is almost as powerful a protagonist as Abraham himself.

* * *

And finally, Sobibor, 9 July 1943 11:30 am. 

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The field is empty. All of the Jews from the train, including Abraham, are inside the gas chamber of Sobibor. The smoke that steams out of the chimney is black and dotted with white specks- these are the origins of the whispers that chased Abraham through the previous eight paintings, the remnants of his body and soul wiping away his identity:

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Krabbé explains that geese were used to cover the noise of people dying in the chambers, so that new arrivals would not panic and flee. They are painted in red. Perhaps this is because they are the only figures left alive on the canvas.

* * *

It is not easy to read posts like this. I recognize that, and don’t blame you if you skimmed through this or only made it halfway through. It was even harder to write, and more difficult yet to see at the National Holocaust Museum. But exhibits like this are important. In exhibiting this series, Krabbé returned to his grandfather his dignity and his identity. The more we say his name- Abraham Reiss, Abraham Reiss, Abraham Reiss- the more we triumph over the evil that stripped him of his personhood in the first place. Keep Abraham Reiss and Jeroen Krabbé in your minds and hearts.

The Demise of Abraham Reiss is a poignant example of why I love art so much. It has the capacity to make people learn things and feel things that they could not have had they simply read a history textbook. I hope that these images and my words helped you with both. As always, feel free to let me know if you disagree with something I said, or have something to add.

Until next time!

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤

 

Banksy: Laugh Now (Museum of Contemporary Art-Amsterdam)

Hey guys!

Last weekend my parents visited me in Amsterdam, and I was so happy to take them around and show them all my favorite artistic spots. But I was even more happy to explore the Moco with them, because it opened only a few days before they arrived! The Moco (Museum of Contemporary Art)  is the latest addition to the bustling museums in Museumplein, such as the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk, and the Van Gogh Museum. It is also another in a continuing stream of museums around the world that devote themselves to late modern and contemporary art- a difficult feat, as museums are typically retrospective spaces in which temporality is presented chronologically. Museums have to adjust their historical perspective to allow contemporary works to be seen. I will save my discussion about the shift in museum culture for another day, but keep this in mind while I discuss the Banksy exhibit at the Moco.

Here is the exterior of this absolutely beautiful building.

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And here is the placard that hangs on the gate outside the museum. It is also repeated on merchandise throughout the museum shop. I bought a t-shirt with this phrase on it, and have been walking around feeling 75% cool and 25% obnoxious.

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The first work that caught my eye was The Key to Making Great Art (2004), made from spray paint on canvas.

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The Key to Making Great Art is a wonderful visual pun. The phrase on the canvas reads: “the key to making great art is all in the composition.” However, the layout of this phrase cuts off the word ‘composition,’ effectively enacting poor composition. It is a cheeky commentary on the rules of design. Who says what makes ‘great’ composition? And what happens when your composition doesn’t fit these standards?

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I also found Crude Oil Jerry (2004) very humorous.

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In this work, Banksy has taken an existing painting, likely purchased from a second-hand store, and painted over it the motif of Jerry from the children’s cartoon, Tom and Jerry. The original painting features an idyllic landscape. Houses are tucked away behind verdant trees and boats sit peacefully in the still water. The brushstrokes are light and frothy, lending this painting a gentle air. It looks like a painting by John Constable or one of the Hudson River School artists.  Cartoon Jerry, however, has been painted in thick, smooth slabs of paint. He sits on a tree branch in the foreground with a match and lighter fluid in his paws and a frighteningly enthusiastic smile on his face.

The juxtaposition of these two scenes is very funny for the viewer. It is not every day we see a pyromaniac cartoon character traipse over a beautiful landscape. But I believe Banksy was after something more than comedic anachronism. In painting over a traditional, existing work, Banksy makes a statement about the western art canon, and what we define as “traditional.” This statement is mirrored by the figure of Jerry starting a fire. When he drops the match, the landscape will go up in flames, consuming the little boat, the tiny houses, and all the green shrubs that are visual markers of an elitist, euro-centric art canon. These two acts: painting over an existing scene, and depicting the scene on the verge of destruction, very clearly articulate Banksy’s views on traditionalism and privilege. He obviously sees this impressionistic style of landscape painting as indicative of wealth and euro-centric traditionalism that he wishes to destroy with an image- Jerry- who is universally recognized and enjoyed. In this sense, Crude Oil Jerry is more accessible than the original painting.

While accessibility of the arts is one of my major interests (hence, the existence of Canvas And Crumpets), its focus in this work contradicts the prices of Banksy’s works and their presence in a museum that charges €12,50 for adults and €10,00 for students. Now, for Museumplein, that is not a steep fee. The Stedelijk next door charges €15,00 for adults. The Rijksmuseum charges €17,50. I understand that museums need to charge money because they need to pay their overhead costs- it is a business, after all. But all of that seems very contradictory to Banksy’s critique of the western art canon and inaccessibility in the art world… On the flip side, Banksy does need to make money too. Spray paint and rent money don’t fall from the sky. It is an interesting paradox. How can a street artist keep his cred when he goes global and starts making big money?

* * *

This work is entitled Kids on Guns (2003).

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Here, Banksy uses spray paint on canvas to depict two small children standing on top of a mountain of guns. They seem blissfully ignorant of the ground beneath their feet. The little boy clutches a teddy bear. The girl holds a red balloon in the shape of a heart above their heads. The two look at each other. We cannot see what they are saying, or what their faces are revealing, because they are silhouetted against the white sky.

The depiction of children amongst firearms is a common trope used to make a statement about violence. Children represent innocence. They are a reminder that we were all once children, who didn’t believe in the causes that lead people to kill each other today. Children are not inherently racist, colonizing jerks driven by thirst for oil, and a simultaneous desire to keep those different from us, away. These are learned behaviors. Depicting children amongst firearms- reminders of the violence that plagues this planet- is a call for peace.

Seeing these two figures above the mountain of guns makes me feel like everything going on is, well, silly. Obviously police brutality, terrorism, and the aftermath of colonialism are nothing to laugh at. But when you see children amongst the mess, you start to wonder what the hell is wrong with all of us. How did we go from clutching teddy bears to holding guns?  Banksy seems to be asking the same question.

* * *

In Four Monkeys (2001), Banksy utilizes his usual medium of choice-spray paint- to make yet another statement about society.

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This image recalls for me the image of the monkey, dressed in a vest, trained to play the cymbal in old Vaudeville acts and movies. They also used to make, and still make, toys commemorating this totally humane practice. Here’s a video, in case you never want to sleep again.

What this old practice points to is more than just animal cruelty. Mankind has always had a strange relationship with monkeys, perhaps because they are more similar to us than we care to think. When Darwin proposed his theory of evolution, he was met with scorn by his fellow humans who believed they were too dignified to be at all related to such a primitive species. I find this rather funny, given that slavery and colonialism were paramount at the time of The Origin of Species’ publication. But that’s a separate rant.

Anyway, hearing that this ‘evil-lution’ business was proposing strong ties between man and monkey had a strange effect on people. They were eager to demonstrate just how stupid monkeys were, in order to separate themselves further from them. Thus, the monkey became a symbol of stupidity, simpleness, and primitivism. It was shown clapping a cymbal repeatedly, with a glazed look over its eyes, to prove to people that monkeys were only capable of simple tasks. (Unlike the human, who could enslave entire races of people. What a skill!)

What Banksy has done here, with Four Monkeys, is bring attention to the idea of human-supremism. These monkeys stand almost entirely upright. Their faces are turned down in a very human expression of sadness. The signs around their necks warn that their time in charge is coming. Even as someone who doesn’t think monkeys are stupid, that is a terrifying thought. After all, we have been raised to feel superior, because we are people, and have the most highly functioning brains of any species. With the exception of poaching laws in certain countries regarding endangered species, we kill all animals we deem tasty, dangerous, or inconvenient. We have assumed our role at the top of the food chain in an unsustainable way. The world is far too populated with humans to sustain us infinitely.

In Four Monkeys, Banksy reminds us that we are not the only beings on this planet smart enough to be ‘in charge.’ It is both frightening and humbling.

* * *

Lastly, here is a photograph of Girl with a Balloon Diptych (2005). This motif, created from spray paint on canvas, is one of Banksy’s most iconic images.

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Here I am, attempting to imitate the pose of the little girl with the balloon. Unfortunately I’m squinting and look more like a terrible ballerina than the little girl in Girl with a Balloon Diptych. 

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The little girl here is mostly silhouetted, though we can see her hair blowing in the wind and the hint of an eye. She stretches one arm upwards towards her escaped balloon. It has blown so far away that it is on another canvas, threatening to leave it through the top-right corner. This girl does not really reach for the balloon. If she were, she would be on her tip-toes, jumping, both hands reaching towards the sky. Her posture is much more stoic. She stands upright, calmly lifting one arm towards her flyaway balloon.

Her attitude towards the balloon is much more relaxed than one would imagine for a small child. The way she stands firmly on her feet, gazing up at the sky, indicates that she has come to terms with the fact that her balloon is gone. But her outstretched left arm reveals that she will never lose hope. It is a kind of calm, constant, peaceful hope that I would not expect to see in a little girl. Perhaps that is the most pure kind of hope; unwavering faith despite the appearance of failure.

This little girl’s hope has a multiplicity of meanings, depending on who is looking at her. When I see her, I think about my life, and the calmness and openness I want to approach it with. When someone else sees her, they might feel hope for the entire future of mankind. I believe that Banksy intended for this multiplicity of meanings. I love art that takes into consideration the experience of the viewer. In fact, I think Girl with a Balloon Diptych needs a viewer’s interpretation to be complete. Banksy’s works don’t just hang on a wall. They are conversations with people.

* * *

Now, I’d like to leave you with a few works that I won’t analyze. See if you can draw your own conclusions about these works from what we have been discussing about Banksy and your own observations.

Top Left: Bomb Hugger (Not dated)

Top Right: Keep It Real (2003)

Bottom: Tortoise Helmet (2009)

* * *

Speaking of hope, I hope you enjoyed this post! And I hope all is well and that, wherever you are, it’s warmer than where I am. It’s 48 degrees and I am NOT happy about it. Good thing I spend 80% of my time in museums 😀

Until next time!

xoxo, Chloe ❤

Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art From Saudi Arabia- Amsterdam

Goedenmiddag!

Today I am going to tell you about the Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia. This small museum is located in Leidseplein, in a larger office space down the street from a cluster of busy bars and clubs. I stood in front of “The Chicago Social Club” for a good ten minutes seriously pondering if a collection of contemporary Saudi art could be housed inside in some secret room (behind the bar..?) But no. If you intend to visit, walk down Korte Leidsedwarsstraat, beyond the mass of outdoor bars, toward a silver-doored office complex. You will absolutely not regret it. And here is why:

The Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia is a gem; a sizable collection of fascinating Saudi art, each work with a unique story and connection to the collector/curator. I am not sure which to refer to him by, as his personal acquisition of each work would suggest that he is a collector. Yet his extensive and scholarly knowledge of Saudi Arabian history and contemporary politics/art, as well as his consideration of the viewer’s experience when viewing the work, reveals that he is undoubtedly a curator as well.

In a visit to a larger museum, there is little opportunity to interact with curators and gain first-hand information about the work beyond the wall placards and audioguide. Here, the curator walked me through the exhibit and engaged me in a dialogue about Saudi Arabian history, politics, and art. In this way, the experience was more like visiting a gallery, and yet none of these works are for sale. That is the wonderful paradox of the Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia: it has the intimacy of a gallery and the dignified atmosphere of a museum.

Take a look at some of the impressive works and their stories. My analyses are a combination of what I learned from the curator of the museum and my own interpretations. Feel free to challenge me, or to add on to my thoughts.

* * *

Here is a photograph called,  The Path, by Abdulnasser Gharem (2008).

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The Path is actually a still photo of a video work of the same name. Both works depict a bridge in a south-western Saudi Arabian village. During a dreadful flood in 1982, villagers took refuge on this bridge. Tragically, the foundation of the bridge was unstable, and the flood caused the bridge to break, killing all of the people on it. In 2007, remnants of the bridge remained, reminding people of the tragedy that occurred over twenty years before. No one is certain why the bridge collapsed, but it was likely because the builders did not give it a proper foundation. This irresponsible decision likely also saved the (corrupt) construction company a lot of money.

Gharem visited the site of the collapse in 2007, and spray-painted the word ‘al siraat’ over and over again on the road. ‘Al-Siraat’ means ‘the path’ in arabic. This act was captured on camera in a video-installation. In this video, the child of a victim partakes in the spray-painting, which adds a greater tone of somberness to this already bitter work. You can watch the video here.

‘The path’ may very well refer to Islam. In the Islamic faith, ‘the path’ is the road Allah summons Muslims to take; a way of spiritual living outlined by Allah. By repeating the word’ al-siraat’ over and over again on this broken bridge, is Gharem suggesting that certain elements of his faith are broken? That following ‘the path’ may lead to death?

It is, of course, possible, but I do not think that this is what Gharem is trying to say. It seems too easy a jump to make- too simple and graphic a metaphor. I believe that Gharem is pointing out a flaw in the mentality of his people, not in religion. Perhaps he is saying that the basic tenets of Islam are being lost beneath religious politics and modernization. After all, it is written: “Serve God…and do good — to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbours who are near, neighbours who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (you meet), and what your right hands posses: for God loves not the arrogant, the vainglorious.” [4:36] Respect for human life is a basic principle of Islam. There is nothing less Muslim than the tragedy of 1982, as it was the consequence of corruption in the construction firm that built the unstable bridge. After all, it is much cheaper to build a shallow bridge than a properly stabilized one. The moment that saving money becomes more important than protecting human lives, there is something deeply wrong. In this way, I believe that Gharem is calling for a return to ‘Al-Sitaar.’ His people have wandered off the path, and he is directing them back.

* * *

This is Pedestrian Crossing, also by Abdulnasser Gharem (2008).

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Pedestrian Crossing depicts the iconographic image of the plane flying into the World Trade Center. On the viewer’s left is a curved yellow road meant to represent the same metaphorical Path described in The Path.

In this work, stamps are the medium, but not to create a print. Usually, stamps are used to imprint an image or text in ink on a sheet of paper. Here, the stamps themselves are used, their rubber corners lined up to one another to form a larger image. Note how most of the work uses arabic-lettered stamps, but the body of the Twin Towers utilizes latin letters.

It is important to note that 15 of the 19 hijackers associated with the 9/11 attacks were members of Al-Qaeda from Saudi Arabia. With Pedestrian Crossing, Gharem seems to be grappling with the fact that several of his countrymen were responsible for the attacks. The Towers and the Path are depicted starkly, with clean, straight lines delineating one form from the next. They float in a gray vacuum, forcing focus onto the motifs of the buildings and the plane. Such a graphic representation forces the event to be seen, and begs for it to be discussed. Pedestrian Crossing does not get bogged down in aesthetics or emotions. It puts forth the facts: two buildings were struck, thousands died, and the majority of those responsible were Saudi Arabian. By forcing the facts onto the table, Gharem demands viewers to face what has happened. He wants them to talk about how such a thing could happen, how a basic principle of Islam- respect for human life- could be forgotten.

Again, Gharem is not attacking his own faith. Rather, he is questioning the general mentality of his country that has engendered extremist groups whose warped version of Islam abandons its true, peaceful intentions. With Pedestrian Crossing, Gharem exposes this twisted mentality, and calls for a discussion about confronting extremism in Saudi Arabia.

* * *

 Cardiac Illumination, by Ahmed Mater (2007) approaches the subject of Islam in a very different way.

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Mater uses gold leaf, pomegranate, tea, ink, and x-ray to create this illuminated ‘page’ of the Quran. It is reminiscent of medieval illuminated manuscripts, yet this page is not book-size. It is over a meter tall and reads more like a painting than a book.

I find this work fascinating because it rides the fine line between profanity and sacrality. In the Islamic faith, figurative representations are prohibited. Contrary to popular belief,  figurative Islamic art does exist outside the Mosque. However, such a thing is sacrilegious in religious spaces, because the only image of Allah is The Word, printed in the Quran. And so, the use of x-rays as decoration on an imagined page of the Quran is questionable. An x-ray, by definition, is a depiction of the human form. At the same time, it is a scientific scan, rather than an actively painted or drawn estimation of the human body. Furthermore, an x-ray only depicts bones. It leaves out all of the elements that make a figure resemble a figure, like muscle, skin, hair- a face! What is an x-ray more than a series of eerie white lines arranged around a spine?

So why, then, did Mater choose to include these controversial x-rays in his work? It can not be just to provide a loophole to a rule in his faith. I think it has something to do with the pureness and liberty of faith. Having faith is an act of baring one’s soul, and opening it up to light. For many, prayer is an act of sharing one’s innermost thoughts and seeking peace of mind. A skeleton is a very literal translation of this concept.

Furthermore, skeletons look more or less the same, while individual people with faces and clothing are distinguishable. By depicting x-rays of human bones, perhaps Mater also suggests that we are all the same to a higher being. Skin color, social status, daily stresses and problems are stripped away in the eyes of Allah (or the Jesus Christ, or God… is it really any different in any other faith?) The fact that one is just as loved as everyone else is a very comforting thought to many who are unsatisfied with their present conditions on earth.

* * *

Lastly, I would like to show you Yellow Cow Products, also by Ahmed Mater (2007).

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The yellow cow is part of a story in the Quran in which Moses tells several Israelites to slaughter a yellow cow and perform several rituals with it. In doing so, they will find out who has committed a dreadful murder. It has taken on a role as a motif that is highly recognizable as a part of Islamic faith.

And so, its commercialization as a line of dairy products is a cheeky response to modernization and capitalism in Saudi Arabia. The yellow cow becomes a product that can be farmed, marketed, sold, bought, and ingested. Importantly: it can also go bad. After all, dairy products do have an expiration date. Mater writes on his blog about this work: “In the ‘yellow cow’ the world is ornate; its bright color is joyful. This glittering world implies that it is highly valuable, that it is all that you want, and all that you live for, but once it owned you (while thinking it owned you) you start to realize what a poor, shabby world it is. And you become a poor shabby human.”

I think this most interesting aspect of this quote is the concept that the world of the yellow cow owns you, rather than the other way around. This is the effect of capitalism, in Mater’s mind. It is a trap in which we are caught and tricked into thinking we have control, but in reality, we are slaves to the products we think we need. Capitalism, Mater says, has the ability to transform even the holiest of things- the yellow cow- into something that is churned (put intended) out to meet consumer demands.

At the bottom of the frame the words “ideologically free” are printed. This is a play on words, as some dairy products are “pesticide free,” and “homogenized” and “pasteurized.” Here what we are free from is not hormones, but any kind of ideology with a set of values and beliefs. Instead, we have been stripped of our individual ideologies in order to survive in an increasingly consumer society.

I think that this attack on consumerism can apply worldwide, but that it is specifically aimed here at Saudi Arabia, a country whose modernization in the past forty years has been uneven. Gharem’s The Path shows how modernization in small villages has been careless and haphazard. In central cities, however, Mater describes crowds of people snapping pictures of towers with their iPhones. Using the yellow cow, a symbol of the Islamic faith specifically, is a reminder to the people in Saudi Arabia of the entrapment of consumerism.

* * *

I hope that you enjoyed this post. The Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia was one of my favorite museums here in Amsterdam. I left feeling like I had learned a lot, but with even more questions than I started with. I look forward to doing further research about contemporary Saudi Arabian art. I am also doing research on conflict in Saudi Arabia for one of my courses here in Amsterdam, and I look forward to incorporating what I learned at the Greenbox into my paper.  It’s funny how things come together like that- I discovered a museum devoted to Saudi Arabian art the same week I chose Saudi Arabian modernization as a topic for my research.

Keep your eyes and ears peeled for art that can add depth to other things that you are learning. It is fascinating to see how interconnected the world is.

Until next time!

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤

Escher in Het Palais (The Escher Museum- The Hague)

Helllooooo friends!

Hope all is well and that you’re finding joy in every day things! Today I ordered a tosti (which is essentially a grilled sandwich) with ham, cheese, and… pineapple. The Dutch are very intense about their sandwiches. I feel like I am starting to become part of the family over at “Coffee And Art,” my favorite cafe. I see the owners almost every day while I eat various sandwiches and type away at my laptop. That is what I mean about living a beautiful life, even when you don’t have a ton of time. Choosing spaces that bring you happiness- like a coffee shop surrounded by affordable woodblock prints- to do copious amounts of Dutch homework.

A couple weeks ago I made it to the Hague to interview Debbie Young and Katarina Sidorova. You can read that interview here. But I also made time to check out the Escher Museum, located in the famous ‘winter palace’ of Queen Emma of the Netherlands. I always find it fascinating to see how museums that are dedicated to a single artist curate their exhibitions. How do you keep one artist’s work- by nature stagnant, as he or she cannot create any new works- fresh?

The way that Escher in Het Palais is set up succeeds at this challenge in a unique way. The first two floors break down Escher’s work into various categories- areas in which he showed great interest, like Tessellation, Infinity, and the Natural World. On the third floor, there is an exhibition of contemporary optical illusions that have built off of Escher’s designs. In this post I would like to focus on the first two floors. Pay attention to how the various categories serve to separate Escher’s interests, but also act as general themes that run through all of his designs. You can find pieces of every category in every work. Escher in Het Palais is a masterpiece of traditional curation, as well as a celebration of Escher’s psychedelic prints.

Here is a picture of the outside of the museum:

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The first category I encountered was entitled “Escher and the Natural World.”

Escher’s early forays into art show his time exploring the European countryside. He drew detailed depictions of mountains and cottages that were actually syntheses of what he saw, rather than perfect copies. He captured the essence of places by piecing together various motifs in a single work. In the following drawing and woodcut, one can see how Escher shifted the perspective of his drawing and added details to create a more unified picture in his final woodcut.

This is the pencil drawing entitled Morano, Calabria (1930).

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And here is a woodcut of the same scene: Morano, Calabria (1930).

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Note how the same  town has been shifted to the right in the woodcut. The sweeping arc of the mountain is much more visually pleasing when it directs the eye left to right and upwards. Additionally, the horizontal string of clouds adds depth to the woodcut by indicating the space between different mountains.

Synthesizing a scene is controversial. Some find it to be “untrue” to the authenticity of a work. I believe that there is a difference between drawing what you see and drawing what you feel. Oftentimes, being in a beautiful place is a result of feeling the presence of everything around you. Even if a mountain behind you is not in your plane of vision, juxtaposing it with the scene before you allows you to provide the viewer with your sense of place, rather than a photographic copy of it.

* * *

Escher’s interest in nature remained even as he moved away from landscapes. In fact, much of his work explored abstract themes, unnatural worlds, and mathematical subjects, but nature remained a prevailing theme.

This is Day and Night (1938), a woodcut in black and blue, printed from two blocks.

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This is a wonderful example of Escher’s interest in nature permeating his exploration into optical illusion and mathematical design. Watch how birds and squares meld into each other in a mind-bending illusion. Symmetry plays a large role in the aesthetic quality of this work- it is pleasing to see how the disintegration from square into bird occurs on both sides of the paper. Furthermore, the white winding street and the black winding street create two poles that are both similar and different. Day and Night is structured on the notion of opposites, and the pattern of repeating opposition is what gives Day and Night its pleasing quality.

* * *

Next, I came upon a selection of prints grouped by the title, “Escher and Perspective.”

Escher was fascinated by the way different vantage points could influence the appearance of a building. He explored how looking at spaces from different heights affected the mood of a scene.

This is a woodcut entitled, Grote Markt, Delft (1939).

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The high vantage point makes the people below look tiny and unidentifiable. Thus, one’s focus is drawn to the buildings of the market. These modestly sized buildings- note they are only several stories high- look larger because they are looked at from high above. The shadows formed from this vantage point are also stark and looming, which adds to the dramatic view.

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This engraving, entitled Inside Saint Peter’s (1935), is also depicted from a high vantage point, but as if one’s face is tilted almost entirely to the floor.

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The decorated floor is a central focus of this engraving. Because so much of the paper is taken up by floor, one gets the sense that he is leaning over a railing, peering down from above. There is something almost nauseating about this view (or maybe I just suffer from vertigo). The words written on the wall of the church are also a major highlight of this vantage point. They are a fragment of a longer phrase: et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum. This translates to: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

This is significant for several reasons. First, it makes sense that a church would bear these letters, as prayer is believed to lead to salvation in the Christian faith. Furthermore, the fact that these words are written at a point high up in the church directly parallels the notion that Heaven is above us. The normal visitor to the church would view these words from below, staring up at them as he looked up towards Heaven. Escher has turned this narrative around. Now, the viewer looks down on these words, and down onto the floor of the church. It is not an anti-religious statement, but a statement about art, religion, and architecture, and the way we attach meanings to symbols.

* * *

Many of Escher’s works explore the concept of infinity. Is it possible in our world?  How can infinity be depicted on a two-dimensional surface, a medium that is inherently finite? “Escher and Infinity” demonstrates how Escher used optical illusions to experiment with infinity.

This is Circle Limit IV (Heaven and Hell) (1960), a black and ochre woodcut printed from two blocks.

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Note how the bats and angels in this lithograph become progressively smaller as they reach the outer boundaries of the circle. This would suggest a finite end at the boundaries of this shape. However, Escher has used shading and perspective to give this circle the three-dimensionality of a sphere. Thus, it appears that we are only seeing a portion of the shape. It follows, then, that the bat/angel motif would repeat well beyond the surface area of the sphere shown here. Perhaps infinitely, into the unknown. In this way Escher utilizes the idea of space- space we cannot see- to suggest infinity.

Here is my favorite lithograph, entitled Ascending and Descending (1960).

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Notice how the figures on the stairs are always ascending, but are never table to reach the top of the staircase. In fact, there IS no top to this staircase. How is it, then, that we do not see the figures descending? It is an optical illusion that forces the eye to move, infinitely, around and around this staircase, hoping to make sense of an impossible thing.

Note also, how Escher utilizes an extreme vantage point to add drama to this scene. Like Grote Markt, Delft, the tower in Ascending and Descending appears taller and more mighty because it is drawn from above. The angle is neither bird’s eye nor straight-on. It is a mix of the two that tricks the eye into seeing a larger image than reality would suggest.

* * *

” Escher and Tessellation” illustrates some of Escher’s most fascinating works. They have been replicated by mathematicians across the world since their creation in the mid-2oth century.

Tessellation is a division of planes according to the rules of symmetry. There are seventeen different ways that shapes can tessellate. Escher discovered these important mathematical variations on his own, through strategic experimentation. As you can see, Escher’s experiments into tessellation also illustrate his continued interest in the natural world, and the concept of infinity.

This is one of my favorite tessellations.

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It is fascinating how Escher used the negative space of one creature to form the positive space of another.

* * *

The last of the categories I will discuss today is Escher and Impossible Worlds.

In addition to his landscapes, his tessellations, and his forays into infinity, Escher explored the concept of new worlds that abide by different laws of physics. Ascending and Descending can also be seen as a member of this category, although I wanted to view it in relation to infinity, because of the effect is has on the frustrated viewer. The optical illusion formed by this otherwise ordinary building is a wonderful example of a new world that does not abide by our rules.

Here is another, a lithograph entitled Cube with Ribbons (1957).

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It takes a moment to see what is so peculiar about this work. Is it not just a group of circles situated within a prism? But then- which circle is inside which? Viewing Cube with Ribbons is an experience of oscillating between two perceptions of this lithograph that cannot exist simultaneously… in this world.

I could say many things about Escher’s explorations of new worlds with different scientific and mathematical laws. Perhaps their creation is a manifestation of the inability, post-World War II, to make sense of the horrors of the Holocaust and the Atomic Bomb. After all, many post-war art movements centered around abstraction as a means of coping with the genocides of the last ten years. It is possible that Escher, a European, was responding to this sentiment in his own way. But- I will not overanalyze too deeply. I will just leave that thought with you. After all, it is important to consider context when looking at any works of art. The art of the 1950s and 1960s was inextricably linked to the pain caused by the mass killings of the 1940s.

* * *

I hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing it! Escher has always had a special place in my heart. My father bought me a book about Escher and a print for my wall when I was quite young. I recently had it reframed and it now hangs across from my bed, reminding me of the possibility of infinite, alternative worlds.

Here is a selfie I took at Het Palais and sent to everyone I know:

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And now, because I just cannot resist, here are a few more photographs of works I found really interesting. Take a look, and see if you can spot motifs from nature, extreme vantage points, tessellation, or infinity. Pardon the glare on some of the works- think of it as adding character!

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Hope you enjoyed this ~trippy~ post. Until next time!

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤

Seth Siegelaub: Beyond Conceptual Art (Stedelijk Museum-Amsterdam)

Hey everyone!

Today I’d like to discuss a unique exhibit I recently saw at the Stedelijk Museum, a modern art museum in Amsterdam. “Seth Siegelaub: Beyond Conceptual Art” is a retrospective of the work of Seth Siegelaub, famous New York curator, author, collector, and bibliographer. He was a contemporary Renaissance man whose impact on the art world cannot be overstated. What I find most important about Siegelaub was his multi-disciplinary approach to art. He did not view art in a vacuum, but in the context of physics, media, history, globalization, politics, and english. Furthermore, his definition of art reached from abstract conceptual art to the study of headdresses and textiles. In “Seth Siegelaub: Beyond Conceptual Art,” the Stedelijk Museum introduces a new generation to the legacy of Siegelaub. What is this legacy? That the interconnectedness of everything can be felt through the practice, collection, and study, of art.

This is what one sees when one first enters the exhibit:

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Transferred. To transfer is, by definition, to cause to pass from one to another. It can refer to a tangible transfer, such as the passing of goods from one person to the next. It can also be used to explain non-tangible exchanges, such as the transfer of ideas into words. So why focus on this idea of transference in Siegelaub’s retrospective? I think that Siegelaub’s multi-disciplinary approach to art is actually a web of transferred ideas, manifested in words, motifs, and abstract concepts. In order to understand what I mean, I’ll take you through the exhibit as I saw it. At the end, I’ll show how underlying themes are transferred in Siegelaub’s understanding of the world.

* * *

The first part of the exhibit that I explored was Siegelaub’s large collection of headdresses.  Siegelaub started collecting headdresses in the early 1980s, and continued until his death. His collection spans the whole globe, with pieces from six continents. They represent a range of cultures, materials, and techniques. And yet, together, they form a beautifully coherent whole. Take a look.

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These headdresses, all arranged on thin white pedestals of varying heights, form a unit. But upon closer inspection, it is clear that these ornate works are very distinct from one another. This first headdress is made from banana fiber, cane marrow, bark, leaves, pigment, and feathers. It is called a “Rom Kon” mask and was made on Ambrym Island, Vanuatu, in the mid-20th century.

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This second headdress was made at the same time by the Kuba People of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is composed of wood, vegetal fiber, shells, and glass.

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By displaying these headdresses together, Seigelaub indicates that people all over the world have intrinsic similarities and interests, simply due to the fact that we are all human. Cultures that are oceans from one another independently chose to wear headdresses, whether for protection from the elements, for spiritual reasons, or for stylistic choice. It is a fascinating and beautiful thing to think that people from different places have similar desires, fears, and solutions to their problems. Taken together, this collection is both a celebration of humanity’s similarities and an exposé of cultural individuality.

I am curious here about the relevance of transference in this aspect of the exhibit. The transference of human emotion to creation is clear.  The fear of the elements and the need to protect oneself, as well as religious sentiment and the creation of spiritual garment, are apparent precursors to the use of headdresses in various cultures. But what kind of exchanges may have occurred that allowed ideas to bounce between existing groups? Do trade and tourism impact the resources available to the creators of these headdresses, influencing how they construct them? And do these activities expose them to different styles and intellectual concepts that affect their approach to making headdresses? These are questions I would like to find an answer to in Siegelaub’s writings, and in literature on anthropology/textiles in general. I am not a student of globalization, but perhaps, as Siegelaub suggests, we all ought to be. After all, art is a reflection of globalization, and the two are intrinsically tied.

* * *

Siegelhub was also an avid collector of textiles. His collection was just as global as his compilation of headdresses, and it indicates his fascination with woven and stitched art. The majority of these textiles are non-western, and feature complex patterns and motifs like the one featured below. These textiles are displayed in horizontal glass cases throughout the exhibit. The light in the room is kept low to preserve the pigments of these fragile works, but their beauty radiates through the dim glass.

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Many of the textiles, despite being from different cultures, share similar motifs. Geometric shapes, symmetrical patterns, and motifs within larger shapes are abundant. I wonder if, like the global popularity of the headdress, these similarities can be attributed to some extent to human nature. If there is something, perhaps, psychologically pleasing about a repetition and straight lines, or a perfect circle. Does the human mind find pleasure in symmetry? Is there a transference of human desire into the methodical design of a textile?

I also believe that the transference of ideas and materials between cultures is an important element of Siegelaub’s study of textiles. The same logic can be applied here that I explained in relation to headdresses, but more so, I believe, because textiles are a more portable medium of art. They form the basis of clothing, blankets, tapestries, scarves, prayer shawls, rugs, and any other fabric-based item. One can trace the pattern of human movement by mapping the transference of motifs and ideas between cultures. For instance, it is easy to see when Europeans began trading with and colonizing the East, because they brought back with them notions of the “Orient” that manifested themselves in European textiles. The appearance of Japanese, or mock-Japanese fans and parasols became prominent in female quarters, as well as layers of velvet and silk shawls shading the windows and covering wooden furniture. Mens’ smoking rooms saw increasingly padded upholstery in vivid colors. Oriental rugs became commonplace in western Europe. Such trends of global movement can be seen on a smaller scale as well, as cultures diffused information through local interactions.

* * *

After examining Siegelaub’s collections of headdresses and textiles, I moved on to the area of the exhibit examining his work as a curator. Siegelaub is often referred to as the Father of Conceptual Art. His early years were spent curating in New York City. The ideas he fostered during this busy time would influence his later endeavors.

One of Siegelaub’s most famous projects was the exhibit, January Show, which he curated in 1969. Up until then, conceptual art was popular, but people were unsure how to package it to the public. Siegelaub presented conceptual art in a way that was digestible and purchasable, by expanding its definition to encompass things that were tangible, and others that were arrangeable. What I mean is, a book or a poster could inhabit a wealth of meanings that made it conceptual. An entire space could be arranged to convey a meaning, and that in itself was conceptual art. In reference to January Show, Siegelaub said, “The exhibit consists of (the ideas communicated in) the catalogue; the physical presence (of the work) is supplementary to the catalogue.” The artists whose work was represented in January Show were Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, and Lawrence Weiner.

You can view the catalogue here. 

Congratulations. You are now in possession of conceptual art.

Because the concepts outlined in the catalogue are the art itself, the physical representations of these ideas in the show are supplementary. As Lawrence Weiner indicates in the catalogue, “the piece need not be built.” And so, the fact that we do see the piece built is merely by chance. Had it not been built, the concept would have remained.

Here are some photographs of the physical representations of January Show. 

“Art as Idea as Idea,” by Joseph Kosuth (1968).

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This concept, as explained in the catalogue, is composed of the artist creating nine dictionary definitions. Each time one of the definitions is exhibited, he instructs that it be enlarged to different, specific, dimensions. In this way, the work has no constant shape. It doesn’t even have a constant form, because there are nine different definitions that can be printed to follow the directions of “Art as Idea as Idea.” Here I have shown ‘Painting’ and ‘Definition,’ but there are seven other options. Both the small version printed in the book and the larger canvas version represent “Art as Idea as Idea.”

The photo below is of Lawrence Weiner’s “AN AMOUNT OF BLEACH POURED UPON A RUG AND ALLOWED TO BLEACH” (1968).

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In this work, Weiner emptied a can of bleach on the carpet of the exhibition the day before it opened. What makes this work a fine example of conceptual art is that it is not about the final image of the bleach on the rug. While it is visually arresting, it is supplementary to the statement, “an amount of bleach poured upon a rug and allowed to bleach.” This statement is the act of art-making. It represents the control the artist has on the space around him. The rug is not bleached; it is ALLOWED to bleach. In this way, Weiner shifts the focus of the work to the act of making, and what this says about individual will and power, rather than the aftermath of this power.

I think of it a bit like physics (which becomes even more relevant later in this post). In physics there is a concept of kinetic energy vs. potential energy. Kinetic energy is the energy one has from moving, such as the flow of a river. Potential energy is the energy one has from positioning in space, such as the water right at the brink of a waterfall. In AN AMOUNT OF BLEACH,  the potential energy of the artist, instructed to bleach the carpet, is the focus. His position in the world allows him to yield force to create a lasting impact.

It seems to me that Siegelaub deliberately chose to curate works that revolved around the idea of transference. The ideas present in the catalogue of January Show could only be seen if they were transferred into something physical, but the original idea, written down in the catalogue, was purest in the minds of visitors. Transference is what allowed these ideas to be seen by more and more people. Reprints of “Art As Idea As Idea” hung in various countries may be secondary to the concept, but they transfer its meaning to new audiences.

I linked you with the exhibit catalogue. You are now a PART of this transfer.

* * *

Siegelaub’s intellectual publications are also a central aspect of this exhibit. After Siegelaub moved from New York to Paris, he became interested in mass-media and left-wing politics. He created the International Mass Media Research Center and started writing bibliographies, one of which was titled Marxism and the Mass Media. Towards a Basic Bibliography. Before the internet made it easy to do research, bibliographies like Siegelaub’s were immensely important for researchers.

This exhibit focuses on the influence of mass media and leftism on Siegelaub’s personal ideology and publications. Siegelaub was inspired to create a radical daily newspaper that would combine his passion for conceptual art with its natural ties to journalism, mass media, and politics. The following is an excerpt from a draft of this paper.

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One can see the influence of conceptualism in the layout and design of this page. It is handwritten, and squeezed for space at the top. The focus is clearly on the message of the work, rather than its aesthetics, a key characteristic of conceptual art. It is also a sly yet direct attack on censorship. It is easy for the reader to decode this page for the censored words, yet it does not technically break any rules. This loophole underlines the absurdity of censorship. The content of the page also shows Siegelaub’s opinion that censorship is a direct attack on the First Amendment. Such a stance reveals his radical political leanings. He believes in free expression, which was associated with a leftist political mindset at the time.

We can also see how political views translated (or transferred, if you aren’t completely sick of that word yet) into a visual, almost artistic, work.

* * *

Lastly, the exhibit ends with a video installation entitled, “The Causality of Hesitance.” It was created posthumously to explore Seigelaub’s ideas about time and causality in physics in a visual way. Although the curator and researcher died before he could finish exploring these theories, he left behind a wealth of bibliographic information about the relationship between and time and causality. Furthermore, his interest in these ideas stems (transfers!!) from his early involvement with conceptual art. One cannot separate the two, as conceptual art in the 60s often dealt with questions of time . And so, “The Causality of Hesitance” takes Seigelaub’s theories and builds off of them, creating a work that is both thought-provoking and chilling. Here is a still of the video:

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In “The Causality of Hesitance,” a man in a turtleneck monologues his ideas about time, all the while acting out these ideas. It sounds confusing, but let me give you a few examples:

  • He says, “Hesitation carves time…” [he hesitates] “…out of time.”

The very act of hesitating is a demonstration of what he is saying.

  • And then he starts talking about radio broadcasting, and its relationship to time. He wonders how long it takes for words to bounce from one person’s mouth, through the radio, and into another’s living room.

“How… long… does… it… take?” He pauses between each word, emphasizing the delay of broadcasting, and how that warps our perception of time.

  • The man then begins to talk about time in relation to art.

“Can an artwork hesitate itself?” he asks. “Can we make an exhibit about not saying?”

If art is about saying something to a viewer, what happens when it says nothing? Is this still art? He says yes, that “unvoiced ambivalence can be an artwork.” It is a poetic utterance, to hesitate. Choosing to not speak, choosing to not represent, elongates time.

  • “Am I talking now?” he hesitates. “How about now?

Does the act of talking cease when he pauses?

  • “Is anyone else listening?”

(Are you still reading?)

  • “Let us make time itself lose its patience. Let us remain. Let us dwell.”

He goes on with this point for a while, dwelling eternally on the concept of dwelling.

  • At this point, I wonder if this man has said anything substantial. I realize that this whole speech is one longgggg hesitation. A deliberate choice to not say anything but to leave us on the verge. He stretches time by explaining time. After all-
  • “Time is material.”

How long did it take you to read this portion of this post? One minute? Five? Did you reread any of it? Was anything that I wrote down actually substantial? Are you very confused?

Can you argue, now, that time is NOT material?

^This is the state of mind I was left in after watching this film. My friend and I had watched this together, and upon leaving, decided we could not see the rest of the Stedelijk that day. We were too emotionally drained from wondering whether we were wasting time or if time was dragging and we needed to sit somewhere and have a sandwich.

* * *

 

“Seth Siegelaub: Beyond Conceptual Art” has been one of the most interesting exhibits for me to review. I enjoyed focusing on a curator, rather than an artist, and looking at art from many different disciplines. I found myself drawing scientific parallels and investigating the evolution of politics. (How does physics relate to conceptual art? How has leftist ideology regarding censorship changed since the 1950s?) I think that this is the main takeaway of this exhibit. I hope that you take it upon yourself to view the world from many perspectives. It is not enough to look at art from a purely artistic lens. It is also not enough to view science or politics or communications in a vacuum.

Start small. I purchased a book at the Stedelijk called “How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic.” Grow your frame of references and you will be able to draw more interesting and complex conclusions from any discipline you study.

Until next time!

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤